Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 90, June 2010

Designers Against Overlocking!

These days there is a lot of talk about reinventing the fashion industry. If you visit a conference on fashion design and production there seems to be a consensus on the contemporary ideas that fast fashion and a prize race to the bottom will see the coming end of the industry. Most often the final discussions concern ideas on how new services, value systems and sustainability standards could save fashion and hopefully also the world. But usually no practical solutions are offered.

Some years ago there was an amazing exhibition at the design museum Platform 21 in Amsterdam called “Repair”. The whole museum was full of broken gadgets, but also of tools and repair material. During the exhibition a lot of workshops were held where visitors were encouraged to start repairing the broken things inside the museum. At the entrance there was an old rusty car with a small sign saying “Adopt a rust spot” and visitors could get sandpaper and paint at the counter and help saving the car from its silent corroding grave.
The promotion material of the exhibit included a Repair Manifesto. It consisted of eleven points with the end slogan “Stop Recycling. Start Repairing.” The central idea was that sustainability could neither be reached by sustainable production, nor by encouraging recycling. We also need consumers to engage with objects, cherish them, repair them, and see how they age with dignity.

But to come to this point we, as designers, need to produce objects that encourage repair. Products which are made to have a second life – and a third. These are objects that can be opened and which contain leads on how their inner life works and are not closed black boxes.

This means we need to design products with more screws and no glue. We need to make objects made for engagement; user improvements, fixes and updates. We need to let go, allow products to get a life of their own, far beyond the designer’s sanctified intentions. This is when we, together with the consumers, finally can take on sustainability in a serious manner. In the words of the Repair manifesto: “Don’t ditch it, stitch it! Don’t end it, mend it!”

The repair of garments has been a central theme in British designer Kate Fletcher’s project “Local Wisdom”, in which she follows and documents the life of garments and their users. One of her interviewees emphasised how she enjoyed her new life with an altered second hand dress. The reason she could adjust this old dress was because it lacked the modern overlock seams.

Local Wisdom - photo Sean Michael

So in fashion we cannot make garments with screws, but we can still design for repair. A first step in this direction is to dump the overlocker sewing machine. An overlocked seam is very easy to produce and saves a lot of time and effort as the machine both stitches, cuts and overlocks the edge of the fabric in one seam and you are likely find it in almost all garments these days. Just look at the inner seam of any t-shirt.

Overlocking limits the possibility of future interventions. As it cuts and trims the edge it closes the seam for repair and alteration and it cuts off excess fabric that could be used for retrofitting. Any adjustment requires the whole seam ripped open and you would never find this seam in good sartorial work as it prevents the garments to be altered as the user ages and changes in body proportions.

Repair also has pedagogic potential. When you repair something your curiosity gets rewarded and you learn new things. You reverse engineer the everyday objects and gets a new understanding of your surrounding. This is a fantastic gift from the designer to the user as it spreads an inquisitive approach to the world and encourage users to re-skill themselves. “How can this be made better? How can I improve this broken thing?” – these are typical questions that engages designers, but they could also inspire users to take on and save their everyday objects.

Being against the overlock seam is not to be against fashion. It not some form of anti-consumerism. It is a positive outlook on how we as designers not just help designing the bright new world, but also to help repairing the good old one.

So don’t lock that seam – open it!


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